Skip to main content

Terrorist group fills power vacuum among Syria rebels

By Nada Bakos, Special to CNN
updated 10:44 AM EST, Thu January 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. declared a key opposition group in Syria a terrorist organization
  • New report says it is the most effective group in the opposition, with 5,000 fighters
  • Nada Bakos: The group has ties to al Qaeda but also seeks to provide social services
  • She says the chances are slim that it could be persuaded to give up radical goals

Editor's note: Nada Bakos is a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst.

(CNN) -- In the midst of the struggle against Bashar al-Assad's government stands Jabhat al-Nusra, recently designated by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.

A new report by the Quilliam Foundation in London says the organization is the most effective arm of the Syrian insurgency and now fields about 5,000 fighters against the Assad regime.

Practically speaking, the terrorist designation means little that is new for the immediate struggle in Syria. Shortly after al-Nusra claimed credit for one of its early suicide bombings in January 2012, the Obama administration made known al-Nusra's connection to al Qaeda in Iraq, a group with which I was intimately familiar in my capacity as an analyst and targeting officer at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Nada Bakos
Nada Bakos

The administration's position was reinforced when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper one month later testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee that "...we believe al-Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria."

Analysis: Study shows rise of al Qaeda affiliate in Syria

Al-Nusra is filling a power vacuum through charitable efforts to galvanize local support and generating influence among Syrians. In light of al-Nusra's influence in Syria, the real question is not so much about the scope and scale of al-Nusra currently, but rather how should the United States respond to its rise, particularly after al-Assad's eventual exit?

Read more: Al-Assad touts plan for resolution, says enemies of Syria 'will go to hell'

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Historically, the U.S. government seemed to believe that as soon as people are given the chance, they will choose and then create a Jeffersonian democracy. Then we are surprised, if not outraged, that people turn to organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood in electoral contests. These organizations often provide the basic necessities that people need to survive: food, water, medical care, education and security.

As ideologically distasteful as we might find them, they are often doing things corrupt, weak or failing governments do not: providing the basic necessities that people need to survive (let alone create the conditions that enable people to aspire to thrive).

Why does al-Nusra keep quiet about its ties to al Qaeda in Iraq? The documents pulled from the Abottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden shed light on his awareness that the al Qaeda brand had been deteriorating.

Read more: Appeals court to consider release of photos of bin Laden's body

U.S. calls Syrian rebel group terrorists
Unrest at Syrian refugee camp
UNICEF struggles to help Syrian refugees

Bin Laden urged regional groups, "If asked, it would be better to say there is a relationship with al Qaeda, which is simply a brotherly Islamic connection, and nothing more," according to CNN. Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri had criticized the Jordanian-born founder and leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for his killing of civilians and lack of political acumen to win public support.

Talk about al Qaeda seems distant. It was a bogeyman made real in 1993 when it unsuccessfully attacked the World Trade Center and terrifyingly tangible in 2001 when its operatives succeeded in destroying the twin towers and expanded their attacks to the Pentagon and the air over Pennsylvania. Its looming shadow has since faded from the public eye, particularly with the death of bin Laden. Its vision and ideology, however, continue to have a strong appeal.

Now that al Qaeda central has a less visible role, what makes players like al-Nusra and al Qaeda in Iraq threats? Even today, after Zarqawi's death, al Qaeda in Iraq has managed to continue to wreak havoc in Iraq and in the region through an autonomous, adaptable structure.

Read more: Senior al Qaeda leader killed in Pakistan, officials say

Al-Nusra has declared itself a player in the fight for a global jihad, a bold statement for what is today a localized group . Even small groups, however, have the potential to disrupt regional stability and complicate America's pursuit of its national security objectives—a fact I learned firsthand tracking and trying to stem the rise, influence and efficacy of al Qaeda in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Zarqawi, until his death in 2006, was able to confound U.S. forces and attack Jordan by attracting recruits from North Africa (including Libya), Central Europe, Jordan and Syria.

Some of Zarqawi's earliest recruits were veterans of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that lashed out against the Syrian government during the 1980s. Captured records from a raid near the city of Sinjar, Iraq, indicated that during the 2006-2007 time frame, 8% of al Qaeda in Iraq operatives were Syrians. The percentage likely ebbed and flowed as the group formed, became influential and waned, but it suggests that there was no shortage of recruits amenable to engage in religious conflict in Syria as recently as 5-10 years ago.

Read more: What is the Muslim Brotherhood?

The most striking thing about the captured records, however, is that it appears almost every foreign fighter entering Iraq to join al Qaeda in Iraq came through Syria. As a targeter, I can tell you that facilitation networks are key: they are the means by which groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq are funded, supplied and sustained. During the Iraq war, Zarqawi's top aides in Syria played a critical role in recruiting, funding and operational planning outside Iraq.

Read more: Syrian minister: Enemies 'brainwashed' slain rebel son

One of the things U.S. officials and the international media should watch for is how al-Nusra uses its terrorist designation: If it seeks to use the declaration to burnish its jihadist credentials, it might be able to bolster the image of the organization in the eyes of the extremist community and parlay that recognition into larger, or steadier, streams of funding—a development that will make the group more viable over the long-term or allow it to expand its operations or influence in the short- to mid-term.

An important differentiator between al Qaeda in Iraq and al-Nusra is one of its tactics: Zarqawi made a practice of indiscriminately killing Iraqi civilians, effectively terrorizing the Iraqi population, especially the Shiite minority. Zarqawi, despite identifying with al Qaeda, had a much thinner theological basis than al Qaeda central.

Key figures at al Qaeda central such as bin Laden and Zawahiri argued with Zarqawi over his tactics, complaining that alienating mainstream Muslims would not help achieve the over-arching goal of instilling Sharia law.

Read more: Ayman al-Zawahiri - Fast Facts

Al-Nusra is using some of the same tactics as al Qaeda in Iraq (e.g., suicide bombings, kidnappings and car bombs), but it appears to be trying to strike a balance Zarqawi was unwilling to make: Not only does it seem to be avoiding alienating—if not antagonizing—the larger population, but it also is providing the people of Syria with a range of goods and services such as food, water and medical care—basic necessities that people need to survive in the best of times, let alone when their country is in the throes of a civil war.

If this becomes a trend, it might signal that al-Nusra aspires to be more like Hezbollah or Hamas, organizations that defy neat categorization based on the range of social, political and military activities they engage in and the resultant legitimacy they have in the eyes of their constituencies.

Read more: Hamas leader unbending, but seeks Palestinian unity

In the Syrian uprising, the opportunity for meaningful U.S. intervention might have passed: Exhaustion from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken their toll on the U.S. military, have taxed the national treasury, and sapped political will, especially as the state of the economy remains at the center of the debate in Washington.

Our absence from the fight is going to cost us if the al-Assad regime fails, leaving rebel groups like al-Nusra dictating the direction, pace and scope of a new Syria.

Read more: Syrian rebel leader talks victory and squalor

Given that managing affairs in the Middle East has never been one of our strong suits, the question at this point should be how can the United States, particularly the Department of State, best engage groups that might be inimical to U.S. values but necessary to our interests in the Middle East? For that, I am not sure there is a clear or simple answer.

One opportunity would be if the United States uses its designation of al-Nusra as both a stick and carrot, cajoling and encouraging it to enter into mainstream politics when (or if) the Assad regime falls.

My read of al-Nusra, however, is that, like Zarqawi, it does not aspire to be a political player and is unlikely to settle for a political role in the new government. Instead, it may aim to play the spoiler for any transitional government and use its resources and political violence to empower and encourage other like-minded extremists. With time and opportunity, al-Nusra could not only add to regional instability in the Middle East, but also rekindle global jihad.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nada Bakos.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT